No major publishing house will even think about looking at your stuff unless it’s submitted by a real, live literary agent. And getting an agent is–no lie–sort of hard. But not impossible. The first thing you need to do is to write a good book. Then you need to compose a good query letter. And by good, I mean ass kicking.
A few years ago, I wrote my first novel. After that, I wrote my first query letter. The novel, alas, did not sell, mostly because it wasn’t very good. The query, however, was ass kicking, and more than one agent told me so. I’ve never actually calculated it, but I’d venture to guess that nearly 70% of the agents whom I sent it to requested a partial.
So let’s take a look at a copy of the letter (just a little bit modified from its original form), and we’ll break it down paragraph-by-paragraph.
Dear Ms. Golomb,
I learned of your agency through the work of Jonathan Franzen, and I’m writing to ask for your representation.
My novel, SO ASPEN, SO EXTREME, is the story of T.J. Burke, a young man forced to reevaluate his life in the resort town of Aspen, Colorado, after his best friend is nearly killed in an avalanche. Over the course of helping his uninsured friend, T.J. reconnects with his working-class past, is forced to confront his developing alcoholism, and ultimately learns the value of belonging to a community he had largely forgotten.
The story may be categorized as accessible, contemporary fiction. Completed, the manuscript is just over 88,000 words long. It is my first novel. Excerpts received favorable comments at the Aspen Writers’ conference, and I’ve been very fortunate to get great advice from novelist James C. Scrivener during its writing and revision. Mountaineer and extreme skier Raddy Brobrah (ESPN Television, Outside Magazine) called it “incredible…It’s the only book I’ve ever read that really gets what a place like that is all about.”
Please let me know if you’d like to have, via email or post, the first fifty pages and a summary of the manuscript for your consideration.
Thanks so much for your consideration, and very best regards,
Part One – Greeting and Introduction
Greeting and introduction. Easy, right? Wrong!!! If you blow this part, you’re screwed no matter how good the rest of the damn letter is, because no one will read past it. Let’s take a look:
Dear Ms. Golomb(1),
I learned of your agency through the work of Jonathan Franzen(2), and I’m writing to ask for your representation(3).
(1) Get the agent’s gender right. Seriously. Do not screw this up. Also, first names? Sort of okay to use, if you’re comfortable addressing people that way. I tend to be more old-fashioned about stuff like this.
(2) Mind games!! “Learning” about Susan Golomb through the “work” of Jonathan Franzen means nothing more than “hey, I read that Susan Golomb sold The Corrections.” The connotation, though, is that JF himself came down from his fortress of solitude in Harlem, put his hand on your shoulder, and said “you know, I read your manuscript…why don’t you shoot Susan an email.” Most of all, it shows that you have DONE SOME HOMEWORK and you know that a certain agent has sold stuff by a certain author. Big points can be scored here.
(3) You ever hear how, in politics, it’s important for the politician to actually ask for a vote? Same deal here. You are asking for representation. Be up front about it.
Part Two – The Summary
The hardest part. For real.
My novel(1), SO ASPEN, SO EXTREME(2), is the story of T.J. Burke, a young man forced to reevaluate his life in the resort town of Aspen, Colorado, after his best friend is nearly killed in an avalanche(3). Over the course of helping his uninsured friend, T.J. reconnects with his working-class past, is forced to confront his developing alcoholism, and ultimately learns the value of belonging to a community he had largely forgotten(4).
(1) It’s a novel, so let the agent know. “My novel…” is a pretty succinct way of doing so. Calling it a “fiction novel” here earns you–deservedly–an immediate trip to the recycle bin.
(2) All caps for the title here. Because we are querying via email, and we don’t know what sort of email client the targeted agent is using, we don’t send italics because they may not be supported. Use caps for titles in email. The end.
(3) If you cannot summarize your novel in ONE sentence–one, tight, perfect sentence–you’re in trouble. This task is not to be taken lightly! Work it out over a couple days. Take your time. Write a couple versions, pick the perfect one. ONE sentence.
(4) Once you have completed the one perfect sentence, write another sentence to flesh out the plotline of your book. Keep it tight. This is one rare time where you can go sort of crazy with adjectives, if that’s your thing.
Part Three – The Hype
The hard part is over (unless you write this paragraph first). Get ready to do some grovelling.
The story may be categorized as accessible, contemporary fiction(1). Completed, the manuscript is just over 88,000 words long(2). It is my first novel(3). Excerpts received favorable comments at the Aspen Writers’ conference(4), and I’ve been very fortunate to get great advice from novelist James C. Scrivener during its writing and revision(5). Mountaineer and extreme skier Raddy Brobrah (ESPN Television, Outside Magazine) called it “incredible…It’s the only book I’ve ever read that really gets what a place like that is all about.(6)”
(1) The agent wants to know the genre. Romance? Mystery? Say it here. Accessible, contemporary fiction? Sounds like a bestseller to me! (Also, if you ever overtly say anything like “I think this book has the potential to be a bestseller,” you are a MORON. Ditto for anything about what a great movie it would make. Everybody thinks that, so keep it to yourself, and keep yourself from looking like an idiot.)
(2) The agent needs to know the length, and the agent needs to know it’s done. Like capital-D Done. Never, ever, ever query before your book is finished. Also, less than 75k words? Maybe not gonna fly (unless you’re writing romance or some genre with shorter wordcounts, and you do know the conventions of your genre, right?) Or greater than 130k words? Go back to your 12-sided editing die, Tolkien!
(3) Everybody has to start somewhere, right? First novel, be up front about it. Also, this is the place to mention prior legitimate publishing credits. Magazines, newspaper articles (not letters to the ed.), prior books. Also: Print-On-Demand is NOT a publishing credit. Mention your POD book here (or worse, admit that you’ve already published this book yourself), and be eternally stained with the blackest mark of shame.
(4) So, yeah, I went to this conference, and I got 3 one-on-one critiques, and someone said there was pretty good dialogue, or something. That’s favorable, right? Mind games!!
(5) True story: I ran into James C. Scrivener at a coffee shop, and he and I started talking, and I told him I was trying to write a book and I was getting pretty dejected about it and wasn’t sure if I should finish. He said “well, don’t give up.” That’s great advice!*
(6) Dig deep for anyone you know–anyone–with some sort of national media exposure. I’ve known Raddy for a long time. I called him up, and asked if I could have a quote. He said, “do I have to read the book? What exactly do you want me to say?” I replied “how about, ‘incredible…It’s the only book I’ve ever read that really gets what a place like that is all about’?” He said great, use it. And so the quote was born. Work whatever angle you can.
*This may be a stretch, but it’s not a lie. Whatever you do, do not–ever–lie about knowing an author, receiving an award, or having some pub credit when in fact you don’t. It’s a small industry, and getting busted for saying some resume-inflating bullshit will kill your writing career before it ever starts. Seriously.
Part Four – Close the Sale
Whew! Almost done!
(1)Please let me know if you’d like to have, via email or post(2), the first fifty pages(3) and a summary(4) of the manuscript for your consideration(5).
(1) Exciting variation! At the beginning of this paragraph, you can add a sentence like: I’ve appended the first five pages of the novel to the end of this message. Appending is a fancy way of saying you copied the first five pages (it doesn’t have to be exact; look for a natural break in the prose) out of your word processing program and pasted them to the end of your email. It’s another way of saying THIS IS NOT AN ATTACHMENT! Agents are super attachment-phobic, so don’t even go there.
(2) Doesn’t ‘post’ sound quaint here? Can you think of a better way to say it?
(3) A 50-page chunk (the first fifty pages) of your manuscript, plus or minus a page or two so you can end at a natural break in the action. This is called a partial, and it will rule your world during the querying process.
(4) Summary, also known as the two-page, single-spaced bringer of pain. Fortunately for you, agents never really seem to ask for one. Unfortunately for you, the one who will ask for it will be the agent you really wanted. Get working, sucker!
(5) Once again, you are asking for their consideration here. Don’t be afraid to say it.
Part Five – Conclusion
Now we come to the payoff.
Thanks so much for your consideration(1), and very best regards(2),
(1) You have taken someone’s time by sending this. Thank them for it.
(2) You will soon learn that seemingly everyone in publishing ends his or her correspondence with ‘best,’ ‘very best,’ or ‘best regards.’ I just went for the triple combo.
(3) Just your name here. You don’t need to be cute. In fact, don’t be cute anywhere in a query. It’s a business letter.
(4) Maybe your query is so rad that Ms. Agent wants to call you right now? There are tales of it happening. So include your phone number.
(5) Maybe your email got printed out and given to an assistant or some other agent, and now they need to know how to get in touch with you. Including your email address here is good insurance.
(6) If you’re appending the first five pages, this is the place to do it. Add a break with some underscores ‘__________’, hit enter, then paste away.
And that’s all there is to it.